Poet Chen Chen talks finding your family, queer Asian American poetry, and Journey to the West.
I first heard Chen Chen read at Split This Rock over a year ago. He read “Race to the Tree,” a poem that surprised me because I was not used to hearing stories like my own. I was 13 when I came out too, was also met with violence and ran away from home for a time. It was surreal—comforting—hearing “Race to the Tree,” and then also to read “Self-Portrait With & Without” and know exactly what Chen’s speaker meant about that 1980s edition of Monkey King.
Chen Chen’s poems have a sense of exaltation and vulnerability to them: poems, with an air of Frank O’Hara, that move in and around mental illness and loneliness; poems that stand together brothers and mangos as much as queerness and Chinese-ness, poems that quiz us on knowing more than one book by Maxine Hong Kingston. Chen’s speaker writes gently but steadily towards relating, towards making families, and towards making further possibilities of families. Over the phone, we thanked our families at Kundiman and the Asian American Writers Workshop, and each other.
Yanyi: Do you do a lot of writing at night? What do you do at night? This is like a vampire question.
Chen Chen: Yeah. [Laughs.] I do write at night. I mean, I kind of write at any time, really, whenever I have a moment to spare, if I’m in that mindset. But I do really enjoy writing at night because there’s quietness, and nothing else is going on, especially during the week. But yeah, sometimes I’ll just read. I’m in the midst of preparing for my qualifying exam as well, in my PhD program.
What made you decide to be in a PhD program?
A number of things, but mainly wanting to continue to be in that kind of intellectual and creative community that a university has to offer. Wanting to have that institutional support for a longer chunk of time, too, because I know a lot of people apply for a fellowship and residencies after the MFA and kind of start living this very nomadic kind of life, where you are in a place for a year or two years at most, and then you’re sort of picking up and starting again and moving somewhere else. I wanted to be somewhere for a fairly longer chunk of time and just not have to worry as much about what the next step was going to be right away. In terms of the academic component I think a part of me was really craving a better foundation in literary and critical theory. The more scholarly side of things. And the PhD definitely provides that.
My focus is in political poetry, kind of very broadly defined. But then also, I have a secondary area that’s specifically in Asian American and LGBTQ poetry. And I have a third area looking at creative nonfiction, actually, and hybrid forms of poetry and prose, like lyric-essay type of writing.
Right. One thing that’s been a learning experience for me has been figuring out how to let the editor or the critical person be one person, and then the creative writing side be another. How have you managed that, or what has been kind of the challenges or the advantages of having a very clear, two-sided approach to writing? Obviously multidimensional, but there are two roles that play into the way we think about our art.
I feel really fortunate that I have had many editorial experiences at this point. I recently started this journal, Underblong, with my friend Sam Wein and I definitely think that reading submissions has influenced me as a writer. I think there are times though, when I have read poems that I really love—whether it’s looking through submissions on Submittable, or picking up a book of poems—but in either case, when I’ve really fallen in love with a poem, that stays with me. Reading that poem stays with me, the poem stays with me. And, that does have an effect on my writing.
I remember specifically soliciting poems from Jennifer Chang for Salt Hill. I had met her at the Kundiman Writers Retreat in 2014, when she was staff there, so we had a point of contact prior to me reaching out to her about Salt Hill. But she sent these poems, and we published two of them, and now they’re in her new book, Some Say the Lark, and it was just a really wonderful experience. I will always associate that conversation now with my first time at Kundiman, which is really magical and opened up my eyes to what was possible in the Asian American literary community. It was such a intimate and supportive and nourishing experience. To see those poems from Jen Chang, and to have this whole association with that retreat—I think it was all of that that really started to influence me as a writer. I’m not sure if this answers your original question. But that’s what it got me thinking about, I guess. Basically, these experiences that might seem—especially with writing— as these solitary acts are always ultimately connected to experiences of community. These interpersonal interactions really do have an effect on things that we typically think of as individual or solitary.
It sounds like the thrust of your editorial experiences have really been colored or, like, outlined with this process of creating community, and of discovering it.
I’m curious, what about Jennifer Chang’s work really spoke to you? What influence has she had on you then? And what influence has your experiences with Kundiman really taught you about your work and what you want to be doing?
At the time I was in second year of my MFA and I think I was starting to really write some of the poems I needed to write. All the poems in my book, although many of them were significantly revised later on, were started during my MFA. Going to Kundiman in 2014 was a hugely affecting experience. I just remember having these conversations with Jennifer Chang at breakfast at the Fordham University cafeteria. One time, I think I was talking about trying to look at one’s tendencies as a writer and wanting to break out of how one usually writes. I was starting to notice some patterns in how I would make poems. I remember Jen saying, yes, we don’t want our poems to become habits. That was something that really stuck with me. The way that she was really paying attention to my concerns and seeing what was in my concern, but also, the way that she values mystery in writing and values the unexpected and being okay with things not making a sort of immediate sense, or a narrative sense, either, in poems. I think that was something I really needed because I also started out as someone who really wanted poems to be very structured and to have that narrative sense. But I was starting to move away from that and try out a more lyrical approach. I also started reading more Jean Valentine, so I think I was drawn to work and perspectives on poetry that really valued that kind of mystery. ‘Cause that’s also what I saw in Jen’s work: her poems, but also how she talked about poetry. That became more valuable to me, and sort of liberating, too.
[At Kundiman] we all split into groups and different staff members led different groups. Jen was our home group leader and she wrote each of us this personal letter—
Oh my god, that’s so sweet!
Yeah, it was really incredible. And within the letter was this challenge-slash-prompt sort of based on what she was seeing in our writing and from our conversations. I still remember the prompt she gave me because I feel like I haven’t been able to do it yet. It’s sort of haunted me in a way. But I love it, because in the letter she remarked on how she was noticing, in my poems, this tendency to start off somewhere pretty concrete and wander into some larger insight. And for the prompt she was saying, what would happen if you were to flip that structure? Where you start off with something that might be more abstract, some insight that you want to make and then go from there and see what happens. That was a really perceptive and important challenge for her to give me. It’s not just looking at an individual poem and thinking, oh, what can we do with this, but it’s really addressing the person behind the poem and how someone’s mind works.
That prompt makes a lot of sense, I guess in two ways. Literally, just looking at the title of your book, When I Grow Up, I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, it’s basically your impulse, or your heart on the book sleeve. I liked the fact that you had an interview with the Michigan Quarterly where you said that, “I hope the book feels restless and unresolved— because I don’t think becoming ever ends… The conflicts in these poems are not fully resolvable.” So I was really interested in this impulse to wander that you just mentioned. Something I’ve been really interested in as another queer, Asian American writer has been, where does this impulse for wandering come from? And how does intergenerational trauma inform the styles that we choose to work in and the things we choose to do with our work? What did the book resolve or open up for you in your poetic journey? Journey is like the word they use in reality TV, but it’s the word that I’m gonna use.
I do think that there is a trauma that informed the book. I don’t know if I’ve thought about it as intergenerational trauma.
I think there are two traumas, or threads, and one has to do with the speaker of the poems, the adolescent son, who is queer in many of the poems. In the first section of the book there are all these poems that are centered on the son and his mother. But in each section, there are poems that return to that, and to this one night when the son considers running away from home after this confrontation with his parents, and in particular, with his mother.
So there’s this circling back to that moment and this traumatic moment of conflict with the mother, and this sense of a really deep separation, and the son kind of realizing that he needs to chart his own path, and part of doing that means leaving home in a psychological sense at that point, more than in a literal sense. But later on, that is something that has to happen. The other thread that makes it an intergenerational trauma is what the mother goes through in leaving China, and her sense of loss in leaving a homeland. I know for a lot of other Asian American poets often the events of leaving a homeland, or being forced to leave a homeland, in many cases, is because of a traumatic event, historically. With China, if it’s the Cultural Revolution and Mao, in particular, or with Vietnamese Americans, in the Vietnam War, and being refugees. It just makes me really think, too, about how broad the category Asian American is, because there are so many different histories within that term. But in my case, it was really an individual choice. It was my father’s choice to come to the United States, and it was because of his studies. It wasn’t something big or historical that led to the family moving.
But I think for the mother, or the mother in these poems, it was a traumatizing event because it was not something she wanted to do. And she had to leave behind a whole familial network, so her sense of isolation, too, is something that these poems explore and think about.
I guess I’m hesitant to use the term intergenerational trauma because it seems that usually refers to something historical that gets inherited as a trauma. But I don’t know. Maybe that is something that I haven’t looked into as much, because when I bring up the Cultural Revolution with my parents, it’s not something that they’ve talked about a lot. So there might be more behind that. But it gets very complicated, because at the same time, I am hesitant to present a narrative that I’m aware a white audience would be ready to consume or are already primed for. There are already these cultural narratives about different Asian countries, and with China, in particular, there’s a certain cultural narrative in the West about modern Chinese history and the place of Mao in that history. There’s also a part of me that doesn’t want to feed into that.
The things that you’re saying about the white gaze on your work are very real. I think everyone kind of contends with it differently, how to be conscious of that while you’re writing. How have you had to think about the white gaze with your work, and what are the strategies you’ve had to think about mitigating that? Because it does seem as though you have quite a bit of influence from the New York School, which I love, by the way.
Yeah, I think that it’s something that I’ve really wrestled with. Throughout graduate school most of my teachers and most of my classmates have been white. And, in the poems themselves, the white gaze is something I’m very conscious of and I tend to address pretty directly. There’s that one poem in the book, “Talented Human Beings,” and the first line is, “Everyday I am asked to care about white people.” And in that same poem, there’s a quiz about…[Laughs.]
I loved that quiz.
…yeah, if you know who Theresa Hak Kyung Cha is, and Vincent Chin, and to name a book not titled, The Woman Warrior. And that, in particular, the Maxine Hong Kingston line, came out of classes during my MFA where that would be the one book by an Asian American writer that’s read or referenced. It started to make me kind of mad. It just seems like white writers had sort of settled on their knowledge of Asian American writing, and felt like it was okay that, well, at least they know one. I really wanted to push back against that, and that tendency to tokenize Asian American writers. So when it does come up very explicitly like that in poems, I’m usually responding to something very concrete that made me mad.
I often think about how Toni Morrison talks about writing without the white gaze. Her refusal of it—which I think is evident in her writing—is very powerful. There’s this great quote from her that has been resurfacing lately where she talks about racism, or the way that it comes up as a distraction from the work. That it keeps you from doing what you need to be doing, writing the work that you want to write, because you’re so caught up in trying to prove yourself all the time to white institutions or to whiteness as an institution, because you think you don’t have language, so then you have to prove that you do. And she points out that it’s endless, that part of the mechanism of racism, how it operates, is that there’s no end in sight for proving yourself, because you’re always already positioned as inferior. I think about that, and also wanting to decenter whiteness. At times, it’s just like, why even address it this way? Even if it feels urgent sometimes? There are times, for my own sake, and I think for my own well-being, as I’m writing, where I just have to refuse it and not even.
‘Cause you can’t even. [Laughs.]
Butt heads with it, yeah. Exactly.
Yeah, I definitely relate, that being angry all the time works against your own work in a way, because you want to either live up to something or respond to it all the time, which is about putting whiteness at the center.
I’m trying to shift it to, yeah, instead of thinking of how mad I am and trying to bring that into the poem, I also try to think of an Asian American and queer audience. What would be the most useful for that audience? But it gets very complicated, because again, I also don’t want to be reductive about how I’m thinking of an Asian American and queer reader.
When I was reading, actually, I really appreciated the specificity in which you named things in your work. You mention Monkey King, the 1980s edition of Journey to the West, and it just brought me so much joy, because I know exactly the version that you’re talking about—I have the theme song memorized—and having the identities of queerness and specific types of Chinese-ness kind of named in your book was empowering and joyful for me, as another person who had those types of touchstones and references.
Also I think you do a great job of naming those specific things without having it be a pandering moment. Sometimes it’s the opposite of pandering. I think you use joy in a way in your poems that works both as weapon and revitalizer. You have the poem, “In the City,” which is for your friend Monica Sok. And you have a line where you write, “I feel like I can tell you how my mother & I / used to make dumplings together, like a scene / out of The Joy Luck Club.” That particular moment was also very resonant for me, of feeling safe enough with someone to be in relation with them in a way where you might be yourself. I just felt so many things when I read your book.
Thank you so much. Wow. That really means a lot to me that you connected in those ways. That makes me really happy. It almost feels silly of me, looking back on it now, but I think growing up I just really was so isolated in many ways, especially in high school and to some degree in college. I just didn’t imagine that what I was writing would have such an effect. Maybe because I have been trained to think of audience as primarily white for so long. So even when I start to realize that I could write specifically for an Asian American or Chinese American and queer audience, for so long it felt like such an imagined audience. It moved me so much now to hear that you had this experience reading it. Thank you so much. What was your question again?
There wasn’t a question, I just said a bunch of stuff and said thank you. [Laughs.] We just thanked each other.
Yeah. But I think that that’s important too, that sharing.
For me, having queerness and my Chineseness intersect has always been very hard because the queer parts of me were not really accepted in my family, but my Chineseness is so inside and tangled up with my family. So for you, is there a way that you’re able to see your queerness and Chineseness together and has that ever been possible for you, speaking to the irresolution stuff that we were talking about earlier too. Do you still feel like it’s in flux and trying to sort itself out?
I think that writing poems and the space of poems really has been that place, if you can call it a place, where intersecting identities can come together and converse. I can really explore how they are inseparable for me. I think so much of my life has been other people trying to separate those things or emphasizing one over the other, and saying in this space you’re more queer than Chinese or in a familial space having to emphasize and really focus on Chineseness, through language in particular.
There’s a poem toward the end of the book called “Little Song,” and I talk about this experience of going to Shanghai and going to a gay club that was literally underground. For a long time my parents, in particular my father, was sort of insisting that you can’t be both these things at the same time, implying that gay Chinese people don’t really exist and that being queer is a learned behavior that you picked up by being in America. So going to China, even though I knew that my sense of Chineseness is really not the same as someone who has lived in China their whole lives, at the same time it felt like this very validating experience. I was like, ha! I’m right. Of course there are gay people in China. And yeah they’ll think about their queerness and Chineseness in very different ways, but it exists and it’s something that I witnessed. Dancing in this club and seeing these other Chinese gay men enjoying themselves was so wonderful and delightful. That was an important, small experience that affected me and really made things click in a way. I knew that had to be in that poem.
But for my specific subject position, I mean the times in real life and not just in poems when I really felt that I was being seen fully, it’s been in spaces like Kundiman and when folks from Kundiman have gathered in other spaces.
I follow you on Twitter and I loved this recent Twitter thread about how the library made you feel less lonely, and also how it helped your parents feel and be less lonely in terms of being able to do stuff. Now that your book is in the world and people can touch it and stuff, what are your hopes for it? You wrote these poems a while ago and edited them obviously. What work do you want them to be doing in the world? And conversely, what have these poems done for you?
It’s really moving to me to hear from people who are like “I just checked your book out from the library!” because I distinctly remember checking out books by writers of color and queer writers, and queer writers of color from the library, and just the sense of discovery that comes with that. The first time reading a book by, say, Henri Cole or finding a poem by Justin Chin, or later in college, Joseph Legaspi, one of the founders of Kundiman. The library was such a resource as a young, queer Asian American person who might not have much access to the outside communities—I think it’s such a beautiful thing and it’s so wild to me that now my book is part of that larger resource for other young people to come across it.
I’ve been reading Sara Ahmed’s new book, Living a Feminist Life and in the book she talks about books that she found along the way, on her path to becoming a feminist scholar and writer and thinking about those books as feminist companions and how returning to those books really feels like returning to your companions, your friends, to someone who’s been with you through your journey.
I think about how much our communities have been through too, and how much loss is often encountered, whether that is in the form of people who had to leave home or sever familial ties and find other forms of family or support networks. I think books are certainly a part of that, when you’ve had to find other ways to survive or to imagine other life paths for yourself that weren’t the ones that were set out for you in the first place. One of the very first ways that happened for me was through books, through reading.
I had a very similar experience growing up in the Midwest with a library. I cleaned out the LGBTQ section for YA. I’m also curious, since you mentioned Sara Ahmed, who else you’re reading right now, who you’re really feeling is resonant at the moment.
Jennifer S. Cheng’s book, House A. Claudia Rankine chose it for the Omnidawn Prize. It’s a book that’s just incredible. The first section is all these letters to Mao. They’re these prose epistolary poems and each one starts off with “Dear Mao.” But it really engages this modern Chinese history in a very indirect and subterranean or subconscious way, very dreamlike. And through this experience of growing up, actually in Texas, in a Chinese immigrant family and just getting bits and pieces of history and how that intermingles with growing up and being in a house and the textures of an afternoon in a house, and the smell of cooking.
Earlier you quoted from my poem “In the City,” when I mention making dumplings with my mother. Food imagery is something I’m very hesitant to include in poems because I think about the markers of culture and markers of otherness and how heavy and obvious they are sometimes. So in that poem I also wanted to acknowledge the kind of marker that it was at the same time.
But in Jennifer S. Cheng’s book there’s this moment where she talks about eating 綠豆湯 and she just uses the Mandarin word for it and doesn’t translate it and it’s just sort of left in the poem. As you were saying about these very specific moments of Chineseness, that was one that made me cry when I read it, because it was the first time I’ve ever seen those words in a poem. And I love that they were left untranslated because it felt like oh, this is just for me to understand the significance of as someone who grew up in a Chinese immigrant family. I was like “Wow, this is incredible. This is what a poem can do.”
I’m really excited to read Joseph O. Legaspi’s second book, Threshold. His first book, Imago has been very influential to me, and is something that I’ve taught in my creative writing class.
I’m really just feeling through the Cheng book you were talking about. And I think part of what you’re describing is the feeling of having your life acknowledged through someone else’s poems.
Yeah, because House A is so inside the experience, the interiority of it is what really blows me away. It doesn’t feel like a description or an outside observation. It’s enacting that bodily experience of what happens when there is this history that’s buried but is affecting everyday life, when there is this whole family structure that may not be talked about but infuses what does get talked about. It’s beautifully rendered in her words.
I can’t wait to read it. I’m totally getting it after this. Did you have anything you wanted to raise or talk about?
I mean, there are so many things that your questions got me thinking about. I also just wanted to say how much I appreciate this conversation.
I’m glad that you feel that way. I hope that you feel that your work has affected me, because it has. I’m really grateful for it.
Thank you. I don’t even know what to say. It’s really special to me.
I think it’s that aspect of community, I feel like this search for other families is really important, especially if you have many intersecting identities that don’t necessarily feel like talking to each other. I think that’s all it is, just like seeing each other and thanking each other and letting ourselves be in relation to help with that sense of isolation that no one knows what you’re talking about. Those are the families we want.